Sunshine, studies and statutes: 2018 summer law student reflections

Each summer at West Coast brings a new cohort of law students from across the country, eager to learn and gain experience in environmental and Indigenous law. This year, we welcomed five enthusiastic summer law students who contributed greatly to our legal programs – including assisting with legal research, attending forums and meetings, contributing to reports and educational resources, and more.

Here's what our 2018 summer law students had to say about their experiences:

Dan Cheater

I had the great fortune to work for West Coast not just for this summer, but also over the past year through Pro Bono Students Canada. During the school year I worked with Staff Lawyer Hannah Askew on a research project about the use of legal personhood for two natural entities in New Zealand: the Whanganui River and the Te Urewera region. I also wrote a blog post on the subject for West Coast’s blog using the research from that paper.

As a summer student, I have had the chance to work on various projects with many of the lawyers at West Coast. Working with Staff Lawyer Gavin Smith and the Taku River Tlingit RELAW team, I was given access to historical interviews, and learned about Tlingit law through recordings of their elders. I also worked with Staff Lawyer Erica Stahl on West Coast’s Legal Advice program, offering assistance to British Columbians with pressing environmental concerns in their area.

My major project this summer has been working with West Coast’s Marine Team, on an initiative surrounding potential co-governance of a network of marine protected areas (MPAs) off the west coast of British Columbia. We looked at innovative co-governance models around the world to understand how marine areas can be co-governed with Indigenous governments, while advancing Canada’s commitment to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and goals of reconciliation. While working on this project, I was invited to push the boundaries of what co-governance could look like in Canada. West Coast lawyers Linda Nowlan and Georgia Lloyd-Smith have given me room to apply the lessons learned from the New Zealand models to consider how legal rights for marine waters could be achievable here using Canadian and Indigenous law.

It has been an unbelievably invaluable experience, not only getting to dream big about the future of environmental law, but also to work with the team here to put that dream into practice. My experience at West Coast has left me with renewed hope that anyone can push the boundaries of Canadian environmental law in a positive direction, as humanity rethinks our relationship with the natural world.

Christina Clemente

This summer certainly seemed like the right time to be learning about and working on environmental issues in Canada. Within the first few weeks of my time at West Coast, Canada announced that it would purchase the Trans Mountain pipeline from Kinder Morgan, and a number of protesters continued to face sentencing hearings in the BC Supreme Court for violating the injunction order at the Burnaby Mountain terminal.

One day I went to the BC Supreme Court to observe a hearing about the Burnaby Mountain injunction order. The hearing opened my eyes to some of the issues around access to justice for arrestees, who came from all walks of life and were not always able to afford legal support or understand the complicated contempt of court proceedings.

Beyond pipeline work, my experience at West Coast allowed me to explore numerous areas of the law and environmental issues, such as: marine protection and co-governance agreements with Indigenous governments, climate adaptation strategies in coastal communities, environmental assessment reform, municipal law and wastewater treatment, forest stewardship plans, and even seafood labeling regulations.

The end of my time at West Coast Environmental law coincides with the release of a relevant, interesting, and thoughtful report on the rights and responsibilities of Indigenous trapline holders in BC, titled Caretakers of the Land and its People: Why Indigenous Trapline Holders’ Legal Rights and Responsibilities Matter for Everyone. By working on this report, I quickly began to understand the high level of dedication and care that West Coast staff take to respect and include Indigenous voices and laws. Not only did I learn about the Indigenous and Canadian legal principles that govern traplines in BC, and the experiences of Indigenous trapline holders, but I learned about the methodology necessary to create a report that reflects many different perspectives in a respectful and critical way.

Christie McLeod

In our first week at West Coast, the summer students participated in a full-day RELAW (Revitalizing Indigenous Law for Land, Air & Water) workshop, which included getting to know the RELAW team and their work, as well as listening to an oral story and distilling legal principles in a case briefing exercise. While there are many things that set West Coast apart – such as the brilliance, dedication, and passion of all its staff – their efforts assisting the application of Indigenous laws as well as incorporating Indigenous laws throughout their work truly stand out.

Early in the summer, I attended a two-day forum in Baynes Sound, a small channel between Denman Island and Vancouver Island that is of great ecological importance. Here, I represented West Coast and its interests alongside government, First Nations, and industry representatives as we engaged in open and productive dialogue about the challenges facing this unique ecosystem. This experience helped me gain a deeper appreciation of the significant complexities of multijurisdictional issues like pollution and industry regulation. It was also deeply encouraging to witness the attendees’ commitment to protecting this stunning coastal area.

Much of my energy was channeled to support West Coast’s work on protecting our marine environments. One major project included researching, writing, and editing portions of a forthcoming guide detailing different tools for coastal protection, which involved delving into statutory interpretation, an analysis of international treaties, as well as federal, provincial, municipal, and regional statutes and regulations. This work taught me about measures to designate protected areas; additionally, taking notes at two committee meetings of the Northern Shelf Bioregion MPA Network illustrated the elaborate process to identify and establish new protected areas. I also had the opportunity to work on several other projects, including a management plan for a First Nations community, and a climate-related project that intimately familiarized me with Canada’s patent database.

This summer provided challenging assignments accompanied by the support of supervising lawyers who care deeply about both you and the work you are doing. This has not only been an immensely educational experience, but also an incredibly rewarding one. I am grateful for the important and innovative work West Coast is doing to strengthen environmental laws in Canada, and the invaluable knowledge and perspective gained from assisting in this work this summer!

Dave Schecter

West Coast Environmental Law’s outstanding work and reputation is what made me excited to work here for the summer, but what I have appreciated the most from my time here is how great the people are to work with. It is one of the healthiest work cultures with some of the friendliest people I have ever worked with. That alone has provided me with an inspiring learning experience. And of course, everyone at West Coast is dedicated, passionate, extremely smart and doing very consequential work. I also want to specifically mention all of the amazing non-lawyers who work here. You might only think of West Coast in relation to the law, but the organization would be utterly lost if it were only lawyers working here.

I have been grateful to receive a wide variety of opportunities to work on a diversity of files. Since I have only had eight months of introductory law school under my belt, these opportunities to do meaningful work are highly appreciated. I have been able to work on files to reform provincial and federal laws related to issues that grab headlines (like the Trans Mountain pipeline) to the equally consequential but less flashy laws, such as specific provisions in the federal Fisheries Act or the recently-tabled provincial anti-SLAPP legislation. I have been able to work directly with individual clients, getting to learn how environmental law (or an absence of law) plays out in people’s daily lives, and how West Coast works to represent them. Additionally, I have gained experience working with Indigenous laws and communities through the RELAW project with the Toquaht Nation, which has been an invaluable experience for me.

But, what I have enjoyed the most is the opportunity to see how the job is approached by the the hardworking, inspiring and passionate individuals that shape the organization. This is not a place where it is just lawyers who speak to other lawyers in a non-decipherable language. They understand that their audience is not restricted to courtrooms or boardroom tables. They approach their work understanding that the law is just as important to those who make it as it is to those who enforce it. People at West Coast approach their work with the understanding that there are a wide variety of tools that could be used rather than the limited set of tools taught in law school. This doesn’t just seem to be the right way to approach their work, but the most effective way to do so.

Working at West Coast this summer I found that everyone involved in this organization, from the Executive Director to each staff member and supporter, should feel proud. If you have the chance to be involved a bit more, whether it is through working here, volunteering your time, or donating a little extra money to the cause, it will be put to great use ensuring the lasting protection of our environment (I promise they didn’t ask me to write this).

Aakash Taneja

The law is a powerful tool. Our legal systems delineate the normative order: they shape what is acceptable and what isn’t. More importantly, they reflect what values are important to us as a society. I made the decision to go to law school because I wanted to use the law as a platform to influence change. This year I finished my first year of law school, and when I was done, something felt missing. There is a slight disconnect between what we learn in the classroom, and what lawyers do in practice.

The first year of law school does not necessarily teach you the substantive details about how the law works in action; first year, in my opinion, is about laying a foundation. You are taught how to understand, appreciate, research, read, and write about the law. These high-level concepts were put into perspective through my work at WCEL. My work experience not only strengthened my professional skills – such as legal research, writing, time management and problem solving – but also gave me the opportunity to learn substantive aspects of environmental law that I was not exposed to before.

Working on a RELAW project increased my insight into how Indigenous legal traditions can, in practice, be used as a source of good environmental governance. This was complemented by my work on a project for collaborative governance for estuary management. My research for this project provided enormous insight into how federal and provincial environmental acts and regulations are applied in enforcing the rule of law in society, and how the current model for governance can be improved to be more inclusive and legally pluralist, whilst allowing for better habitat and species management.

Other projects I contributed towards, such as WCEL’s work to protect lands and waters from the Kinder Morgan pipeline, and the Climate Law in Our Hands campaign, were extremely meaningful to me. My research for these projects not only increased my substantive knowledge of tort law, criminal law and the law of remedies, but it also further cemented the idea that the law can be used as a tool to enact necessary change. Working with a client seeking legal advice was extremely meaningful as well – it was refreshing, reassuring and quite inspiring to assist a client with strong environmental values that reached out to WCEL for assistance in protecting wetlands in his community from industrial action.

Additionally, I assisted lawyers in their academic research, adding depth to my understanding of important legal issues such as the legal basis for trapper rights, the need for minimum standards of protection for marine protected areas, and how UNDRIP can be implemented to make Canada more legally pluralistic. Though I was often a small part of a much bigger picture, I learnt the enormous value of collaborative legal academia, and how it can influence the evolution of legal thought and change in society.

In short, working at WCEL was the ideal first legal job for me: I worked with an inspiring and motivated group of individuals who not only taught me a lot about the law, but also provided perspective on the kind of career (and life path) I would want to have. Life truly is about the people you meet, and more than anything, I feel blessed to have had the opportunity to work at WCEL and meet like-minded people who can serve as a model of how lawyers can influence meaningful change.


Top photo (left to right): Christie McLeod, David Schecter, Christina Clemente, Aakash Taneja. Absent: Dan Cheater (Photo: Rumnique Nannar)

Dan Cheater, Law Student
Christina Clemente, Law Student
Christie McLeod, Law Student
David Schecter, Law Student
Aakash Taneja, Law Student